In our first Ask The Retailer interview, Ryman owner Theo Paphitis shares his opinions on stationery, the High Street, and Brexit.
Happy 125th anniversary to Ryman, and to the opening of the new King’s Road store. You’re bucking the trend on the high street by opening new stores rather than closing them down. How have you managed this?
I think it’s because we’ve remained relevant to our customer base. We’re very much a services-oriented retailer these days. We’ve got print shops in our Ryman stores, we’ve got DHL, Western Union, gifts, stationery. We’re a service-driven business. As for stores disappearing from the high street, we are seeing the growth of e-commerce businesses, but we’re there physically to serve our customers with what they want today. And over the 125 years we’ve evolved to remain relevant, and without that relevance we wouldn’t exist.
You opened the very first Stationery & Office Products show for Chris Leonard-Morgan back in 2008. The stationery market has evolved massively since then, with more interest in designer stationery, journaling and personalisation. Is your new store on King’s Road a sign that Ryman is embracing this, or are you sticking with your core market of office supplies and student customers?
Personalisation is a very strong trend at the moment, and it is for us - we do it with notebooks and pens as we have our own facilities. It’s a growth area of our business. We do what our customers need, so we evolve, and that includes personalisation. With the DHL, Western Union, gifts, stationery, you name it, we’ve got something for people’s every day lives. Especially when you look now at how many Post Offices are shutting down. People still have needs, so they come to us.
Are you looking to expand the Post Office services side of Ryman?
No, we haven’t opened a new Post Office for a long time, because the business model just isn’t right for us. Well it’s not right for anyone, not just us! Until that model changes to make it relevant. We work with the Post Office as partners, but with rental rates being what they are and staff costs, it just doesn’t pay to expand this part of the business.
Is the King’s Road store different to a typical Ryman branch?
Yes it is. It used to be a typical branch, when we used to share the old premises on King’s Road with Waterstones. When I first bought the business there was a big punch-up - verbal and legal I mean! - about whether we could stay in the premises. Then we kissed and made up and we’ve happily co-existed for the past 24 years. But then we had an unrealistic landlord who thought he could raise the rents by a ridiculous figure. So we did what we always do in those circumstances, which is to thank them for their kindness, and then we moved the Ryman store 70 metres down the road, to a much nicer shop for a lot less rent, where we’re able to continue serving our customers. And now the landlord of our old premises has got an empty shop…
What initially attracted you to the brand? [Paphitis purchased Ryman in 1995]
I thought it was a good business, a business I grew up with and was comfortable with. The product range was one I enjoyed. At the time I felt it was a national brand that was unloved, and it was. At the time we had 80 or so stores, we’ve got 200 now. So we’ve grown our store portfolio, not just our turnover. At the time, everyone said “what are you doing?”, with other office products stores like Staples and Office World cropping up everywhere. They said “there’s no reason for you to exist.”
So how did you prove them wrong?
Having listened to everything they said, I did exactly the opposite. And I didn’t just do that for the sake of it. I felt we had a real opportunity at Ryman and there was a reason for us to exist. And that was to serve the community and be relevant. It worked because I had great colleagues who knew what they were doing. And we wouldn’t have been able to make it a success otherwise.
You have 220 stores across the UK - would you ever consider expanding internationally?
We have considered it, but it doesn’t make sense for us. The UK is our back yard, we’re well-known here. That’s where we’ve stayed, and we’ve stayed strong here.
How do you think Brexit might impact your business?
Who knows? Nobody knows, the prime minister doesn’t know, parliament doesn’t know. The man on the street doesn’t know. Regardless of what happens, what we’ll do is adapt our business accordingly. Not knowing is the worst thing. As we get closer, and we get to see our cards, then we’ll decide what to do.
The founder of Ryman in 1893, Henry J Ryman, was passionate about creating a good working environment for his staff, with welfare schemes and team-building experiences. How has his example informed the work ethos at Ryman 125 years later?
I am positive that if Henry J. was alive today, he would be immensely proud of the work ethos at Ryman. Recently I’ve been giving 50-year service awards out, 45-year and 40-year service awards. 30 years is commonplace, so yes, I think he would have been immensely proud.
Did you know it’s Fountain Pen Day today? [2 November]
Who told you that? You’re making it up!
Do you use a fountain pen?
I have got a fountain pen on my desk, and it looks fantastic. I pick it up from time to time. If I want to write something special, or I want some inspiration, out it comes. For the rest of the time I use a fibre-tip pen or brush pen - I like to do a bit of calligraphy now and then. I use fibre-tip pens because they’re quick and easy and I can keep one in my pocket. I’ve got hundreds of them!
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I think I’ve worked very hard to get where I am today, I’ve been hugely fortunate, massively fortunate to work with the people I work with, to achieve what we’ve achieved together, and when I look around me, at the people I work with, that’s the one thing I’m most proud of. Of course I’m proud of the brand, I’m proud of all of my brands, Ryman, Robert Dyas, Boux. So if I had to narrow it down to just one thing, it would be the people I work with.